Prather's Picks: Book details life at Elkhead

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“Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West,” written by Dorothy Wickenden, is a nonfiction book, but it reads like a novel. The setting is Northwestern Colorado in 1916 and 1917, particularly the Elkhead settlement near Hayden.

The two society girls, referred to in the book’s title, are Dorothy Woodruff and Rosamond (Ros) Underwood. These two women, from wealthy upbringing, met during their kindergarten years. Later, they attended Smith College together and afterward traveled abroad in Europe.

Once back from Europe, the women were expected to settle down, marry and raise families. That’s what their parents expected of them, but Woodruff and Underwood had other ideas. They were adventurous. They decided to travel to the Wild West where they would teach in a rural school for a year.

The idea for the book apparently came about when the author, Dorothy Wickenden, found a folder of letters that had been written by Dorothy Woodruff, her grandmother. The letters, beginning July 28, 1916, were written to her family back East included details about life at Elkhead.

Later the author also secured similar letters that had been written by Rosamond Underwood and sent to her family. The two women wrote 50 of these letters in all. In addition, the author found about 40 letters that Woodruff and Underwood had sent home from Europe while on their travels.

Wickenden also did extensive research on the Elkhead years. Sources included oral histories, Colorado newspapers and books. The research sources are documented at the end of the book.

Although the book is about Woodruff and Underwood, there are two other leading characters. The first is prominent Routt County citizen Farrington (Ferry) Carpenter. A graduate of Princeton, Carpenter was a Hayden lawyer, cattle rancher and an influential citizen of the Elkhead Settlement (an influential citizen of the state of Colorado, for that matter).

The other is Bob Perry, supervisor of the Moffat Mine, owned by his father, Samuel M. Perry. The mine was located outside of Oak Creek. He and Carpenter were friends.

Carpenter figures into the book because he had an idea to consolidate two of the Elkhead Settlement schools, which he considered to be “ill-equipped, drafty cabins,” into one school. He wasn’t thinking about just any old school, either. He had in mind a quality school with classes taught nine months of the year.

And that’s just what the people got. The Elkhead residents voted to consolidate the two schools and finances were found. Carpenter claimed that the resulting school was “the most modern school in all of Routt County.” The school building had electric lights, a basement with a furnace, a gymnasium and a science room. It also had a partition that could be used to divide a large room into two classrooms.

Once the school was ready, Carpenter set about advertising for two teachers. Interestingly, the job description required a recent photo from each applicant. Turns out that Carpenter had an ulterior motive for building the school — an amusing twist to a true story.

When Woodruff and Underwood found out about the job openings, they jumped at the chance to travel out West. A year of teaching in the “wilds” was appealing to them, indeed.

So the book begins on July 27, 1916, as the Northwest Pacific Railway Train pulls into the Hayden depot. The women are met by Carpenter and spend the night at the Hayden Inn. The next day, Carpenter takes them to the Harrison home where they will board with the family for a year.

The Harrisons live about two miles by horseback from the school. The women hire the Harrisons’ 14-year-old son to guide them to school each day.

Woodruff teaches grades one to five; Underwood has the older children. The reader learns about the curriculum, details about the school day, Halloween and Christmas parties, getting to school during blizzards and a whole lot more.

On weekends, Carpenter and Perry entertain the two women. Perry was “smitten” when he first saw Ros Underwood; so was Carpenter.

Also included in the book’s events is some history information about Northwest Colorado. The reader learns about mining industry, Brown Palace Hotel, the Meeker Massacre, life of a homesteader and the story about the kidnapping of Bob Perry.

The book also includes an epilogue, an acknowledgment chapter, notes on the book’s chapters, a 12-page bibliography, an index, photographs, a reading group guide and a “conversation” between the author and New Yorker Editor David Remnick.

This is an excellent book!

“Nothing Daunted” is published by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster Inc., 2011. It is available in both paperback and hardcover. You can find it at the Craig Branch of the Moffat County Libraries, The Museum of Northwest Colorado and Downtown Books.

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